Cover Story: Smash It Up!

Of all the oddly enticing elements to be found at the 2000 Hamilton County Fair, demolition derby seems to scream the loudest

Aug 3, 2000 at 2:06 pm
Matt Borgerding

Collision at the Butler County Demolition Derby

Grab your overalls, urbanites. The Hamilton County Fair is on this weekend in Carthage. And for many of us city slickers, the fair presents a chance to get a taste of country life just by driving a few miles north of downtown Cincinnati.

And what exactly does country life taste like? Well, a lot like a hot, greasy corndog and a cold cup of cherry pop. Or a box of popcorn, a candied apple and a sugar-sprinkled funnel cake with a blue puff of cotton candy for dessert.

Yes sir, life in the country is sweet.

Of course, the fair isn't just about food — it's a feast for all the senses. The scent of perfume mingles with the smell of alfalfa, barnyard dung and cigarettes. The midway dazzles with the sights and sounds of brightly lit, multi-tentacled rides, slinging screaming teens into paroxysms of uncontrollable laughter.

If nothing else, the fair's a great place to people watch. Since I don't have kids, I never tire of watching parents trying to negotiate a child's full-on fair tantrum. The grownups might know it's not worth the $2 it takes just for the chance to win a stuffed, 10-cent Tweety Bird made in a Taiwan sweatshop — but for the kids, a trip to the fair isn't complete without an armload of crap at the end of the day.

People watching is also a good way to pick up on current fair fashions. Ken Griffey Jr. attire is still in and, as you might expect, the coif de rigeur at the county fair is still the Mullet. This inexplicably popular hairstyle — also commonly known as the Short/Long, the Kentucky Waterfall or the Neck Blanket — curiously often appears wet, as if the wearer had just emerged freshly shampooed from the shower.

Mmmmm. Sweet smellin' mullet.

Having visited fairs in Clermont, Butler and Warren counties over the past couple of weeks, I'm awash in county fair memories. I'm also resolute about never again standing behind a cow.

In preparing to write this piece, I felt it was my obligation as an investigative journalist to experience the flavor of the fair firsthand. It's nice work if your employer is gullible enough. And if my everyday job description included riding the Tilt-A-Whirl and stuffing my face with junk food, they'd never call me lazy again.

As far as I was concerned, writing about the fair was going to be an expense account coup. When would I get another chance to itemize my account with two foot-long hot dogs ($4.50); one Colossal Pickle ($1.25); three fried cheese logs ($4.50); five games of skeeball (resulting in giant inflatable Pokémon doll, $10); 15 attempts at popping a balloon with a dart (resulting in Shania Twain mirror and Chewbacca action figure); and one replica Confederate flag air freshener I bought outright just 'coz I needed one ($2)?

At the Butler County Fair — affectionately referred to by some as the Butt-Co Fair — I also spent six bucks of CityBeat money on the Demolition Derby. The experience not only turned me into an instant devotee of the sport but also ensured that I wouldn't have to write a 2,000-plus-word cover story on corndogs and mullet hairdos.

I'm a pretty big sports fan as it is — though the only sport I truly excel at is air hockey — but demolition derby just might be my new favorite. As a man of the people, I appreciate demolition derby as the ultimate populist sport that it is: It requires absolutely no athletic ability whatsoever, and you don't have to wear one of those ridiculous looking uniforms like they wear in team sports.

Demolition derby will never become a fat-cat sport like golf, nor will you ever hear about demolition derby drivers going on strike. It's essentially a non-gender-specific amateur sport for anyone brave enough or crazy enough to try it. Besides, it's thrilling to watch.

Rules of the (Dirt) Road
For the uninitiated, the basic setup of demolition derby is this: A group of cars, 15 or so, usually in the same body-size class (sedans, compacts, etc.), face off in a mud pit and ram the living shit out of each other until only one car can still move. Apart from specifications concerning allowed modifications to the cars, demolition derby has precious few rules.

The rules it does have mostly concern driver safety, the main two being no hits directly on the driver's door and no head-on collisions. There are also rules against having alcoholic beverages in the pit area but, frankly, in a sport that involves having as many collisions as possible, drunk driving is probably something of a non-issue.

How well some of these rules are followed, however, is another matter entirely. At the Butler County Demolition Derby on July 24, I saw a few head-on collisions (which the fans love) and there was the occasional driver's side hit. It's possible this derby follows a slightly different set of rules, but even with a standardized set of rules there's no official governing body for the sport and therefore no real authority to enforce the rules except on a derby-by-derby basis.

As Brad Greer, manager of the Hamilton County Fair and a former derby driver, suggests, it's difficult for a driver to follow the rules to the letter.

"You're gonna bump a driver's door," he says, from his office at the Hamilton County Fairgrounds. "But you can't set up the driver for a full-on hit."

After watching the Butler County Fair's derby, which Greer describes with a hint of reverence as a "serious derby," it's easy to see the difficulty in avoiding those dangerous, accidental hits. Demolition derby is maximum chaos, and it's probably nearly impossible to be precise in a field of mud, smoke, fire and twisted metal with an adrenaline-pumped, pissed-off version of the Dukes of Hazzard on your tail.

Still, it's amazing just how accurate some of these drivers are with their hits and their calculated misses. As Greer says, for the successful driver, demolition derby is all about picking your moment of attack.

A Little Strategy
The name of the game in demolition derby is to protect your front end. As the saying goes, kill the radiator and it's just a matter of time before you kill the car.

That's why you'll see most drivers attacking with their back ends. For someone such as myself, who can barely back out of a driveway without winding up in the neighbors' yard, the derby drivers' backwards maneuvering is nothing short of amazing.

There are, of course, plenty of drivers who attack with the front ends of their cars, and this is done for a few strategic and not-so-strategic reasons.

"There are three reasons why drivers attack with the front end," Greer says. "One, they're rookies and they don't know better. Two, they become consumed with road rage. And three, the money's on the line and they think they can take a car out."

Curt Daniels, a seven-time veteran of the Hamilton County Fair demolition derby, has been around the sport long enough to take the more strategic approach.

"When I make a hit, I'm trying to break or bust something," he says.

But as Greer and Daniels both concur, there are drivers, especially those new to the sport, who are more concerned with just hitting something than they are about developing a plan to win the contest.

"The rookies are sometimes the most dangerous," Daniels says. "They just put it to the floor and stomp."

He also echoes Greer's sentiments about drivers who become enraged during the derby. Daniels, who drives purely for the fun and the competition, has little respect for the drivers who can't keep their tempers in check.

"People do hold grudges," he says. "Some cars, if they take a hit, they'll go right back after the person that hit them. What kills me, though, are the guys who get mad. It's a sport of hit and get hit, and somebody has to lose. It might be me or it might be somebody else, and you never know what's going to take you out."

As Daniels says, it can be the small things as well as a hard hit that knocks a driver out of a derby. Some cars are disabled by minor damage or might get bogged in the mud or caught up on one of the logs that mark the track's parameters. It might even be something as small as forgetting to put gas in your car, something that Daniels good-humoredly admits to having experienced firsthand.

One might assume that the best strategy in a derby is to avoid taking hits altogether, but, as Greer explains, there are good hits as well as bad.

"You're trying to build an anvil," he says of the early minutes of a derby. "You want to pack in the back of the car and the quadra-panels so they don't bow out on you."

Of course, just like in love, there's no better strategy than having a good car.

If You Build It, They Will Smash It Beyond Recognition
When I meet up with Daniels to look at his car just a few days before the Hamilton County Fair, he's busy making final preparations. He's taken a 1981 Caprice and painted it a ferocious chlorophyll-green color. I'm certain it must glow in the dark. Hell, it could be an effective means of disorienting the other drivers.

As Daniels explains, all of the cars in the Hamilton County Fair's derby must be models from 1978 or newer. One reason for running newer cars is that older cars are harder to come by and more expensive. Plus, they don't build them like they use to. An old Lincoln Continental would make a quick snack out of the young whippersnappers they make these days.

Daniels' car looks like a solid piece of work. He's welded the doors closed, made preparations to reinforce the driver's seat and placed a metal rod vertically across where the windshield used to be to make sure he doesn't lose his head (literally) while driving.

Still, the car doesn't offer a whole lot in the way of comfort or protection — no CD player or his-n-her climate control — and there's every reason to think, looking at the car, that a good, solid hit would hurt like hell. Daniels likens the experience of a direct hit to crashing into a wall at 35 miles per hour. But he says it doesn't hurt as much as you might think, at least not at the moment.

"Your adrenaline is pumping so strong that you don't really worry about it," he says. "But the next day you'll probably feel it."

Daniels has mostly suffered just minor cuts and bruises, though he did get pretty banged up a few years ago from a driver's side hit. But he half-seriously remarks, pointing to his car's treacherous looking engine, "I think I get more scars from building them than I do from actually running in the derby."

Daniels seems proud of his car, despite the flack he's getting from his buddies for having an FTD sticker on the back. After I've given "the Beast," as he calls the car, a thorough inspection, he enthusiastically asks if I'd like to hear it.

When he fires up the engine, it's louder than the wrath of God, Khan and at least two middle-period Deep Purple albums all rolled into one. As the engine roars and flames shoot from the headers that point skyward, Daniels waxes poetic.

"It's a beautiful sight at night when the flames leap out." he says. "At least it is to me."

Demolition derby has an odd, apocalyptic beauty to it. When the cars roar at night, the track looks like something out of a Mad Max movie. With its oddly futuristic but archaic battered vehicles belching plumes of smoke, it's a vision of Hell — or maybe a close approximation of what Pittsburgh must have looked like about 25 years ago.

Daniels hopes that his car and his experience will bring him a good showing in the derby. But I get the feeling he'll have a good time no matter how it comes out. He stresses that he's just in it to have fun, but this year he's also driving to honor an old friend and personal hero, Alan Hammond, who recently passed away.

In the Hamilton County Demolition Derby, Daniels will be driving 2, taking his friend's old number. So if you're in the mood for mud and rubber and you don't mind a little smoke, head down to the derby and give a cheer for number 2. He's the green one, driving backwards, just looking for a hit. ©